English Muffing

London Theater Goes a Bit Crumby

 London— Viewed from America, theater here seems a source of sure-bet plays and productions. Seen up close, the situation isn't so clear-cut. To the contrary, it's apparent that figurative tectonic plates are inexorably shifting.

To wit (though wit may not be the right word), the English seem to have lost the knack of getting Noël Coward right. In celebration of the master's centenary, two of his most effective comedies have been pushed awkwardly out from the wings. That Hay Fever (Savoy) is a shambles has entirely to do with director Declan Donnellan's desire to overintellectualize Coward's sublimely simple script, in which the four eccentric members of the Bliss family each invite a guest to their country house for a carefree weekend, a retreat that goes awry. Intending to demonstrate that the playwright had more substance than is sometimes conceded, Donnellan has encouraged his actors, Geraldine McEwan among them, to play the Blisses not as self-absorbed charmers but as cruel pranksters—a lethal blow.

The fault with Philip Franks's treatment of Coward's Private Lives (Lyttelton)—wherein divorced Amanda and Elyot meet again on the night they've each just married a twit—is the casting. Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser are so physically mismatched that when they put their heads together for the play's series of bicker sessions, they look like a half-dollar wrangling with a dime.

The Coward problem may, of course, be a lapse rectified by subsequent revivals from the canon, but other changes in the theatrical climate are also apparent. (Though not, perhaps, to universal dismay.) Within the last few weeks, it's been announced that Miss Saigon and the long-running revival of Grease will close shortly, and more stunningly, it looks as if Cats—promoted as "Now and Forever"—won't last the year. The signs, then, are easy to read: the musical as overwrought spectacle is going the way of the dodo bird. Further confirming the local shuffle is writer-director Peter Barnes's unwieldy Dreaming, which has been showing in the echoey Queen's Theater to scattered onlookers. The drama with songs, about a soldier trying to find his way home from the War of the Roses, not only looks like a dark parody of The Wizard of Oz, but, more to the point, registers as a metaphor for shell-shocked British Theater Today.

Which isn't to mention the mediocre entries. Hanif Kureishi's Sleep With Me (Cottesloe) focuses on a successful scenarist stumbling around his summer retreat while complaining to his wife, girlfriend, and guests about being burdened with having it all. The Chekhov knockoff, in which the promise of soul-saving work consoles few of the characters, is one of those where a renowned writer, Kureishi this time, tries—fooling nobody—to gain sympathy for his own rakish misbehavior. Less offensive but no more effective is Liz Lochhead's Perfect Days (Vaudeville), about a single woman whose biological clock ticks so loudly she decides to have a baby out of wedlock. Were the seriocomedy to travel to the States, it would look like a diluted version of Wendy Wasserstein's Heidi Chronicles.

The winds of change may not, however, be completely ill. There is some good around:

1. Shockheaded Peter (Lyric Hammersmith) is a mesmerizing adaptation of Heinrich Hoffmann's 1844 children's book, which consists of doggerel poems about mischievous children who come to dire ends. The author-performers—Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jo Pocock, and Adrian Huge—have taken Hoffman's send-up of moralistic tales and turned it into a one-set-only Grand Guignol–Edward Gorey musical hybrid meant to entertain adults as well as kids. (It's scheduled to start performances in New York at the New Victory October 14.)

2. Dogs Barking by Richard Zajdlic has closed at the living-room-small Bush, which Mike Bradwell operates with a knowing hand. Like Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, which also bowed here, the abrasive, verbal, up-to-the-minute melodrama about battles between and within the desensitized sexes is likely to surface elsewhere.

3. Mark Rylance's Julius Caesar (New Globe) is a must-see. Written 400 years ago, Shakespeare's script inaugurated the first season at the original Globe. Now, when Mark Antony importunes his friends and countrymen—with today's groundlings responding noisily—the Bard's reasons for catering to the audience are illuminated without any help from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman.

4. In Meredith Oakes's unsettling Holy Mothers, a translation of Werner Schwab's Die Präsidentinnen, three women—one a compulsive talker, one a bleached gossip, and one simply odd—take up defecation as their main topic of conversation. Unlike recent movies, however, the intention isn't just to shock the complacent and delight the puerile but to poke into usually unexamined corners of the warped modern psyche.

In other words, theater in London is undergoing what it so often heralds: death and rebirth.

 
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